By Bronwen Beechey
MELBOURNE — The Age Comedy Festival has become a major event on the festival circuit. This year it features such treats as Bea Arthur from the popular Golden Girls TV comedy series, and regular events like the Charity Gala and the notorious "Storming St Kilda by Tram".
Events of interest to fans of political and alternative comedy include two British acts, "terrorist clown" Chris Lynam and Stomp, an ensemble combining percussion, dance and comedy which was a big hit at the Adelaide festival. Those who enjoy the comedy of Italian political playwright Dario Fo (Accidental Death of An Anarchist) can catch a production of his most recent work, Trumpets and Raspberries, at the Organ Factory in Clifton Hill.
Women's comedy has always been a feature, and this year has several one-woman and all-women productions. These include established comics such as Wendy Harmer, Rachel Berger, Mary Coustas (Acropolis Now), Denise Scott and Judith Lucy. Feminist columnist, author and cartoonist Kaz Cooke will be presenting Heartlands, an exhibition of cartoons spanning 10 years.
However, one previous feature, "La Joke at Le Joke", a women's comedy season that gave many aspiring women comics a supportive environment to try out their material, is not happening this year.
Liz Sadler, who is doing a return season of her popular one-woman show Faith, Hope and Psychotherapy, told Green Left that part of the reason for the disappearance of La Joke was probably that many women in comedy now felt confident enough to perform in "mainstream" venues. However, she feels it is "a pity" that a forum for new women to try out their talents no longer exists. "Although there are more women working in comedy now, affirmative action is still needed — it is still very much a boys' game."
Deborah Field, a member of Girlarte Theatre productions — which is presenting Is Tom Peeping, a play dealing with women's fear of the known and unknown noises of the night — agrees that comedy, like other arts, is still male dominated: "Women have to work twice as hard to get anywhere". She feels that part of the problem is the socialisation of women to be submissive and quiet — "It's less acceptable for women to be naughty".
One venue provided for women new to comedy is Suspended, a cabaret-style revue presented by Monash University Student Theatre. Fifty women were involved in writing and producing the show, which has 15 women and three men performers. Sally Warhaft, the show's producer, said working on the show had been a confidence-boosting experience for the women involved, many of whom had never previously written or performed, and a learning experience for the three males.
Much of the women's comedy in the festival deals with issues such as violence, incest, body image and sexuality. However, all the women who spoke to GLW stressed that they didn't believe that the main function of women's comedy was to deal with "women's issues" or >line".
Warhaft reported that the women who worked on Suspended found out very early that a "line" would be impossible because of the very different viewpoints of the women involved. Michelle Williams, who appears in the one-woman play Mistress, says that while the play explores serious issues, it is still important that comedy perform its main function of entertaining.
Liz Sadler says that while much of her stand-up comedy has a strong political edge, Faith, Hope and Psychotherapy arose out of an interest in psychology in general and a fascination with the "new age" industry in particular. While she exposes many of the excesses of pop psychology through characters such as money-making motivator Carol Cashflow, she did not set out to be prescriptive in writing the play. "I see it as celebration as much as satire."
Although women's comedy is still often marginalised or dismissed, like women's contribution in general, women comics are optimistic and positive about their role in challenging people's attitudes while making them laugh.
Michele Williams makes it clear that the humour in Mistress is not anti-male, even though it criticises aspects of male behaviour. It is more, she says, "about women claiming their own power". Liz Sadler sums up the role of women's comedy when she says: "Women bring a fresh, new vision to comedy — as they do to most things".
The Age Comedy Festival runs from March 30 to April 18. For information about events, ring (03) 416 0122.